Saturday, October 07, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 4: the removal of the "I"

In reading through Marjorie Perloff's essay on John Cage's poetry, which is largely not recognized as poetry) on Ubuweb, several thoughts occur:

• What is considered normative in contemporary poetry nowadays is self-expression, figuration, psychological revelation. Even prior to the Confessional poets—notably Lowell and his followers, and to some extent Plath and her imitators—poetry has been assumed to be about artistic self-expression. This is of course a legacy from the Romantic era, with its mythology of the tortured artist standing alone against the bitter world. (What is often misunderstood is that Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther not to promote this idea but to vilify it, via negative example.) Think of the Myth of Beethoven as the typical example of Romantic angst, sturm und drang. (It is notable that many of our terms for these Romantic tropes come from German.) Think also of the post-Romantic myth of the tortured genius painter striving alone to achieve something new and memorable: from van Gogh to Pollack, this is a continuous thread in the history of 19th and 20th Century painting.

Thus, we get poetry and artwork and music that promote the artist's ego as special, as derived from genius (or at least from talent beyond the norm), and we get the idea that The Artist must stand apart from The Masses, and be in opposition to or conflict with them; via misunderstanding and rejection, if for no other reason. Thus, we get the archetype of the Starving Artist, whose works will never be appreciated in his or her own lifetime—which is a particularly pernicious and damaging archetype, not just for artists but for those same masses, who fear "the madness of art" for themselves, and thus segregate art into a specialized activity. (In contrast to several Asian cultures, such as the Balinese, where it is normative for everyone to be an artist, musician, sculptor, or otherwise creative, and not in opposition to their daily work lives, but in complementarity with them. After a day driving cab, you play with the local gamelan group, for example.)

As long as art remains a specialized activity practiced mostly by professionals, it will remain the domain of the exalted and exaggerated personal ego. As long as we continue to believe that art is practiced mostly by professionals, even as we scatter our creativity across the globe via the internet (ignoring that in fact, everyone is capable of being an artist), the dominance of psychological revelation in art will continue.

• Here's how Cage defines poetry, in the Foreword to Silence:

As I see it, poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.

This is a musical definition of poetry. Despite many arguments about language, prosody (meter and rhythm are both aural and musical elements), or other arguments for poetry being heightened prose, I find Cage's musical definition of poetry to be irrefutable. (Of course, my background, like Cage's, is originally as a composer of music.) Poetry is musical elements applied to the world of words. Poetry is meant to be heard as well as read on the page; therefore, every reading of a poem is a musical performance, involving the music and rhythm of speech. Like music, a poem does not exist until it's performed (notation is not performance; the score represents how to re-create the sound, but is not itself the sound).

Therefore, we can regard arrangement of the words on the page—line-breaks and enjambment, stanza-breaks, punctuation—as musical notation giving us indications for performance. Each of these typographic arrangements presents a notation of performance: breath, timing, pause, silence, spacing. The placement on the page represents the timing of reading: space-time are inextricably combined. (This is how Cage came to regard performing his poems, and to writing them, as Perloff discusses.) So, punctuation and line-spacing and line-breaks are not prose, and do not have to follow prose rules of grammar and syntax, because the word-speech is a sonic performance. This allows us, as poets, to break away from the (normative) "rules of grammar and syntax" in our poetry, and opens the door to new possibilties of both presentation on the page, and of performance in aural space.

So, words can be come purely sounds, removing syntactical meaning and content from their essence. Words become elements, like meter and rhythm, of a musical space-time. We remove the "I" from the experience of writing and reading a poem, and from its performance, by removing specific syntactical meaning. (Cage's use of typography as performance indication is explicit in his vocal piece 62 Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham.)

• Syntax is the regimentation that shapes a group of words into meaning. Cage writes in M:

Syntax, like government, can only be obeyed. It is therefore of no use except when you have something particular to command such as: Go buy me a bunch of carrots.

Of course, syntax can be deliberately disobeyed, as well, but this is, like the atheist's arguments against the theist's, merely a negative proof: the fundamental assumptions are agreed upon, and the argument becomes only an either/or assertion and denial.

An alternative approach is to ignore syntax entirely. How does one do that? (Other than simply not paying it any attention, of course.)

Syntax creates context: the parts of speech are arranged in orderly, related fashion. James Joyce, for all his punning and allusive imagination in Finnegan's Wake, did not in fact alter syntax. He used ordinary structural parts of speech and subsituted neologisms and puns. (Except for the ten Thunder Words, which are onomatopoeic.)

If we ignore syntax, we ignore context, and words can become pure sounds. Another definition of music I've heard, post-Cage, is: Music is organized sounds in time. That's a very broad, inclusive definition, and has room in it for both standard poetry performance, and text-sound poetry. The most interesting poetry presentation, however, then becomes a score's performance, rather than reading an arrangement of words on the page.

(Some of the Language Poets claim that this is what they are doing, but I disagree on the grounds that their approach to the removal of meaning from language is a misère argument in the same way that negative proofs support those things one is arguing against, as mentioned above. Most Language Poets are not in fact removing self-expression and psychological revelation from their poetry, they are simply making it harder to find, more obscure, and, arguably, less interesting and relevant to the reader. Neither are the Language Poets using chance operations, in the way that Jackson MacLow and some others pioneered, to create their texts.)

Chance operations bypass personal taste, and remove the ego's choice from the decisions made about the composition and performance of poetry and music. This is why many artists began to use chance operations in the 1950s, partly as a response to what was going on in the world at the time: the extreme forms of egotism exemplified by dictatorial fascist and authoritarian regimes on the national stage. What is a dictator but an individual with a magnified ego, and the power to back up his every whim?

Remember, in all this, that language structures the way we think about reality, as much as how we think about reality structures language. There is interplay and interaction, it's a feedback loop process. But, for those normative situations in which the ordinary person usually functions, language is often a dominating paradigm: it becomes very difficult to conceive of something that our language cannot already express.

• So, normative syntax helps maintain the foreground of the artist's "I." Normative linear syntax leads us to structure reality in a linear, progressive manner; and our language reinforces this. (Which is one reason many people find quantum mechanics difficult to understand, because its results contradict ordinary linear syntax.) Alternative syntax, or its abandonment, can be a door towards opening the poem out into the egolessness of actual existence. (It is one option, even if not the only option, or an ultimate possibility.)

But this doesn't mean that an egoless poetry must be a descent into meaningless or random chaos. "Organized sounds in time" still retain semantic import, meaningful content. The distinction is that one is free to invent one's own meaning, in response to the performed (or read) text, rather than to have a fixed meaning imposed on the poem by its author. The removal of the "I" means that the poet is not necessarily the arbiter of the poem's meaning; the poet can be as surprised as the reader (the pleasant surprise of the revelation of meaning in the world's presentation of events, read as images and/or as symbols). This leaves the door open to the unconscious, to the possibility of synchronicity (meaningful non-coincidence), and to the surprise of revelation itself. For no revelation was ever predictable, all arise from Mystery, and all change the way one perceives and structures the world, temporarily or permanently. We have to get the "I" out of the way, in order for this to happen.

This conception is supported by chaos theory and fractal geometry, which show that even apparently random, chaotic systems contain higher levels of order. (What keeps us locked into normative grammar and syntax may be fear of the unknown, fear of the chaotic, more than anything else.) Chaos contains order. Fractal boundaries show us how much chaos and organization interpenetrate—very much like the ancient Taoist symbol of the yin/yang, wherein the seeds of light and dark and to be found in each other, always whirling around in dynamic symmetry. Semantic meaning emerges from egoless space, just as fractal forms emerge with stunning beauty from apparently random recursion.

From the existential viewpoint, as described by Camus (rather than Sartre, who got stuck on nausea and never got past it), meaning is something we create for ourselves. Meaning is something we find as an emergent principle. At its most shallow level, meaning is something we impose on the world, on events, on each other. (The problem with this, when it's done shallowly, is that our unconscious is also projecting its contents onto the world, and thus what we mostly see are mirror-reflections of our own shadow-fears and repressed desires.) At a deeper level, meaning is something that is revealed by observation of the world's patterns, as an emergent property.

• So, removing the "I" from poetry allows the world to come through. Even when we avoid saying something, by abandoning syntax and/or using chance operations, meaning still comes through. The removal of the "I," again, is about letting the meaning come through. Rather than me as the poet telling you what the poem is about, what you can find in the poem, its threads and turns, is something you, the reader, can discover for yourself.

This is not the same as puzzle-box poetry: that poetry still has a poet-determined meaning, but the poet has deliberately concealed it, as a game strategy. This is not the same as much Language Poetry, which often just deliberately obscures meaning for the sake of being obscure. (There are plenty of puzzle-box makers among the Language Poets.) These are tactics that strongly retain the poet's ego, in that they are intentional and, even if only barely so, self-expressive and psychologically revelatory.

I propose an (alternative) poetry that is not psychologically self-expressive of the poet's intentions and desires. (I am not saying this is a poetry one can practice all the time, but is a possible goal to work towards.) Such a poetry would allow meaning to be an emergent property of each poem of this type, rather than something specifically intended by the poet. (Yes, I am repeating myself: circling in towards the center, because this way of thinking about poetry is apparently so far outside the usual thinking of many poets that it will immediately draw fire as "experimental" and other basically derogatory critical dismissals.)

Such a poetry might, for example, be purely descriptive, purely imagistic, purely cinematic, purely sequential and yet non-narrative. (Semantic content arises from its sequential presentation; in which case, if the sequence of presentation were indeterminate, different meanings will arise from different performances.) Such a poetry, for another example, might be more like the Cage pieces described by Perloff in her article. Such a poetry might be "purposeless play," which is about waking up to being in the present moment, once we get the usual mental chatter out of the way. Such a poetry might lead us to the truth that there is no inherent purpose to art-making, no essential truth of what the artist is or does. And therefore, ultimately forgiving our definitions or art, music, and poetry from having any essential meaning. So, we become free to stop worrying about poetry, poetic intention, and The Artist, and become free to just do it.

Such a poetry already exists. We have only to discover it.

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